The Problem of Agency: “What’s Left?” February 2015, MRR #381

I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding,
The effort it takes just to keep on dreaming

Of better days, and better ways

Of living.

Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
“Fairytale,” The Wilderness: The Nomad Series

“A new world is possible” was the slogan that emerged from the era of anti-globalization protests, which in turn evolved into an endless series of social forums that continue to this day. Airy and tentative compared to the insurrectionist communizing nihilism that followed, this sentiment is the lite version of a prefiguring politics that goes back at least as far as the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World constitution which called for “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Indeed, it can be argued that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” So wrote the young, still Marxist Leszek Kolakowski in his essay “The Concept of the Left.” Thus, I intend to define who and what is trying to make a new world possible, and how successful such efforts have been to date.

I’ve always considered myself on the side of those who would create a new and better world. And I have more than a passing interest in the claimed existence of The Historical Agent (THA—also called the revolutionary agent/subject, or the social agent/subject), the radical social grouping with the human agency to affect revolutionary social change not just in the past but in our lifetime. Walter Benjamin proposed a similar messianic understanding of history, a sense of messianic time or a weak messianic power he associated with Marxist historical materialism and couched in cryptic, poetic terms in “The Concept of History” which ends with the statement that “[f]or every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.” Unfortunately the four broad terms usually synonymous or often conflated with THA—The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement—each tries yet fails to be sufficiently all inclusive.*

The modern workers movement which congealed out of Medieval artisan and peasant strata can be said to have its origins in the practice of English Chartism at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Marx’s theoretical efforts to define such workers as a social class based on their relationship to the means of production. The economic labor unions and political workers parties of this emerging working class, not to mention the labor syndicates and workers councils that combined economic and political power, spread widely well into the 20th century, extending working class culture and consciousness internationally. Efforts to make The Workers Movement either less Marxist (by describing workers as simply “everyone who works for a living”) or more Marxist (through Leninist notions of the “industrial proletariat” or Maoist concepts of “proletarian consciousness”) must now give way to discussions of post industrial workers, marginal or precarious workers, or the abolition of the working class altogether.

Socialism refers to political theory and practice, as well as organizations, movements and regimes based upon social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of economy and society. Socialism as such goes back to the 18th, if not the 17th centuries, centered primarily in Europe. With roots in millenarian and utopian traditions, socialism diversified through the 19th and 20th centuries, though it can be generally categorized as either working class or non-working class based. In a 21st century rife with capitalist triumphalism, socialism has become a curse.

Born from an accident of seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly after the 1789 French Revolution, The Left means the politics and activity that arose from 1848 onward. Centered in Europe, it comprised Marxism (and eventually Leninism), anarchism, syndicalism, unaffiliated socialisms, even types of political democracy and liberalism. The Left’s configuration dramatically changed after 1945. First, there was massive proliferation as Leninism of Stalinism, Maoism and Third Worldism. Second, there was the consolidation and attenuation of Marxist social democracy. Third, there was the virtual extinction of anarchism/ultraleftism before its youthful resurgence. Fourth, there was the purposeful non-alignment of other forms of socialism. And fifth, there was the rise and fall of democratic liberalism. With the exception of anarchism/ultraleftism, these political forms experienced a contraction and retrenchment on or before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Finally, The Movement covers Leftist politics and practice, as well as organizations and movements within the United States from the mid-1960s on. This was when the Marxist-Leninist old Left was superseded by a New Left rapidly differentiating into New Communist Movement and other kinds of Third World politics, an evanescent anarchism/ultraleftism also quickly diversifying, proliferating forms of non-affiliated socialism and liberalism, and a plethora of social movements such as Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black (brown/red/yellow) Liberation, etc. In turn, the “crisis of socialism” that has riven The Movement since 1991 has produced a near universal turn toward identity politics and postmodern Leftism.

It’s not enough to consider whether THA is an adequate analytical category, a viable classification comprised of the intersection between The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” Walter Benjamin said, “he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.” Four overlapping Venn Diagram shapes cannot magically yield a clearly defined collective human entity with historical agency within the convergence of these four nebulous social movements. There is still no precise historical delineation of who or what is responsible for the meager successes and overwhelming failures that I identify with as a socialist, a Leftist, a member of the working class, or a part of The Movement.

Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, history was one of three painful steps forward and two excruciating steps back. The period of world wide social upheaval bracketed by the first and second World Wars produced a sudden revolutionary surge from 1945 through 1985. “Real existing Socialism” (Soviet and Chinese style Communism, the so-called Second World) dominated a fifth of the earth’s land surface and a third of the world’s human population. Social democracy and social movements contested ground in the First World. And socialist struggles for national liberation and socialist national non-alignment proliferated in the Third World.

There were indications that all was not well however, especially in the West. I have argued for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the 1968 Generation’s impact (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) in a previous column. In covering much the same ground (“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08), John Lichfield reposted the overly simplistic formulation that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” Timothy Brennan spends many an essay in his book Wars of Position contending that the poststructural, postmodern Left, especially in Western universities, had embarked by 1975 on a “war against left Hegelian thought” that successfully buried Marxism, its “dialectical thinking and the political energies—including the anti-colonial energies—that grew out of it” by the mid ‘80s.

These setbacks were minor however compared to the watershed collapse of “real existing Socialism” between 1989 and 1991. Kenan Malik summarized the consequences that followed this turning point in his 1998 essay “Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference”:
The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation.
The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the power of the organized working class dramatically declined, all fronts from anti-colonial to social justice struggles experienced profound retreat, labor and social democratic parties and regimes were neoliberalized. Any one of these historical events is immensely complicated and deserving of deep historical analysis. Yet, collectively, they have been naively hailed by Establishment pundits as the results of the world wide triumph of capitalism, an end to the bipolar world order under neoliberalism’s Pax Americana, even “the end of history.”

I don’t have the space to disabuse my readers of this jejune myth of capitalism’s unequivocal victory and socialism’s undeniable defeat. But I do have the time to shatter the delusion, promulgated principally by anarchists, that with the near universal decline and defeat of the “authoritarian Left” their time has come, and that the future is anti-authoritarian. Clearly, forms of anarchism, neo-anarchism, libertarian Marxism and even leaderless Leninism are some of the fastest growing political tendencies on the Left over the last two or so decades. Yet those who wish to understand how things change, historically and socially, need to heed the conclusions arrived at by Max Boot in his comprehensive historical overview of guerrilla warfare entitled Invisible Armies:
Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

It should be obvious with the end of the Cold War that matters are far more complicated than a superficial battle between, and facile triumph of, good over evil. Equally obvious is that the concept of THA remains a slippery one, resonant with messianic intent, and hence one not easily pinned down by its successes or failures. Finally, I hope I’ve made it obvious that anarchism’s history is one of unmitigated defeat, and that anarchism by itself lacks the historical agency to do jack shit.

*[A discussion of agency is a consideration of human subjectivity. In contrast, emphasizing the objective to the point of denying the subject has a long tradition in Marxism, beginning with vulgar Marxism which contended that inevitable economic crises caused by predetermined historical circumstances would bring about the certain downfall of capitalism, whether or not humans had anything to do with it. Louis Althusser formulated a Marxist Structuralism in which ideological and material structures define the human subject out of existence. Thus, history becomes “a process without a subject” according to Althusser. Finally, the current Marxist school broadly subsumed under the rubric Krisis, or the Critique of Value, argues that capitalism is a single interconnected system of capital and labor components bound together by the valorization of capital, which transforms into the valorization of value and which will inevitably collapse due to crisis. Labor has no historical agency, but is merely an abstract historical category. History might harbor many revolutionary subjects, but the working class as a class cannot be one. Workers cannot constitute a revolutionary social class.]

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